How to Spot and Attend Great Conferences

What’s the formula for a great conference?

I love going to in-person events and conferences, and in the past 20 years I’ve had a hand in planning more than my share. While preparing for the Solo PR Summit (the full schedule is live today!), I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes a good event great.

As we look ahead to 2013, deciding which professional development events to attend is often part of the planning process. Regardless of the nature of the content (whether PR specific, or in your industry of specialization), a few guidelines are universal:

Truly great content with actionable takeaways

Personally, I hate it when a conference puts a couple well-known people in easy chairs on a stage, have them chew the fat for an hour, and call it a keynote. I don’t think I’ve ever learned a single thing from a session like that – big name speakers, in and of themselves, are not enough.

I want presenters to teach me something new, give me a new way to look at things, and respect the fact that a group of people is taking time out of their busy schedules to see them. Has the speaker recently written a book? Then make sure you’re interested in that book’s topic, because – regardless of the session title – chances are you’ll be hearing a variation of their “book talk.”

One benefit of my conference addiction is I’ve seen *a lot* of people speak. I look for events where I know the speakers will be interesting, engaging, and smart enough to make my brain hurt.

Give attendees a chance to share their knowledge

It’s somewhat rare for an organizer to recognize this, but at every conference, some of the smartest people in the room are in the audience. The very best events have ways to encourage attendee input and facilitate information exchange.

Plenty of time for Q&A

In a room of 100 people, if only two get to ask the speaker a question, that’s just not enough! Related to the above, a healthy Q&A discussion with audience input can be the thing that takes a session from good to great.

Speakers who enjoy attendees

Some speakers have big egos and avoid hob nobbing, while others truly enjoy mingling with their audiences. Interestingly, I find the camp a speaker falls into has zero to do with their actual knowledge and/or influence! We like getting to know the folks presenting, don’t we? And when speakers participate in the conversations around other sessions, it’s interesting to watch, and everyone wins.

Go beyond networking to create a community feel

Big events with multiple breakout sessions certainly have their place, but conferences where most or all of the sessions involve the majority of attendees can make for a nice change. There’s a communal feel to having a shared experience with your fellow attendees, and it certainly makes networking easier.

For the Solo PR Summit, we’ll have a single track of sessions along with a “Networking Lounge,” for those who’d like to skip a particular session or need a break. Great conferences have meaty experiences for attendees no matter what they decide to do, and obviously we’re aiming for greatness.

When I develop a conference program, the best part is I get to build an event I would love to go to! I can hardly contain my excitement for the Solo PR Summit schedule, and February just can’t get here fast enough, if you ask me. If you’re coming, try to register by next Wednesday (December 5) to get more than half off with the early-bird rates!

What do you think are the most important factors that make a conference great? What are some of your favorite events that you’ve attended?

  • Kelly, If you used the above principles for the Solo PR Summit it is sure to be a success. This post ought to be the ultimate checklist for anyone planning an event. I know that those are the attributes that helped to make Social South a success and still has people talking about it years later. Good Luck, but it seems you’ve done your homework and planned well. I’m sure I’ll be hearing the buzz and reading great things about it! I wish I had time to drive over from Birmingham.

  • Hold the phone, pause the iPad; it’s in February? Hmm that changes things. May be able to make it after all.

  • How appropriate that you would comment, Scott – Social South continues to be the event by which all others are measured in my book! It was truly awesome. And I am holding the phone, pausing the iPad, in hopes that you can make it. 🙂